Jens Lekman’s third album begins with a short overture titled “Every Little Hair Knows Your Name,” a scene-setting instrumental that lets you know right away that this is going to be his easy listening album. The piano plunks out a simple, melancholy melody; the strings swell bittersweetly; the guitar strums gently. It’s all very perky in its glumness, and only a little bit cheesy. It’s nothing new and surprising, though. Ever since he scored a minor internet hit with “Black Cab” eight years ago, the Swedish singer/songwriter has been hinting at this particular sound, flirting shamelessly with the saccharine.
I Know What Love Isn’t, therefore, sounds like the culmination of his career, a record marking his arrival at a sound we knew he would get to eventually. And while many (including this writer) may prefer the lower-fi excursions of his first EPs—the Left Banke sample on “Black Cab,” the crowd chant-along “I Saw Her in the Anti War Demonstration”—he manages to make such stridently indefensible styles sound romantic. The record sounds crisp, expensive even, but it never sounds slick or soulless. Instead, Lekman treats easy listening like a stray puppy. The world doesn’t want it anymore, but that just makes him love it all the more.
Thematicallly, the stunted romanticism of easy listening fits his songwriting to a vintage T. Few lyricists have so successfully located the intersection between droll and devastated and clever and poignant, but Lekman has pinpointed it exactly. It’s almost redundant to say that I Know What Love Isn’t is a break-up record, because to some extent that’s what all of his records are about: severed relationships, missed connections, ungrasped opportunities. “We made out in every bar in town, while the State of Victoria burned down to the ground,” he sings on “The World Moves On.” It’s only one hookup, lasting no longer than a bar crawl and a local disaster, but something about it remains unrealized and therefore immensely sad.
On the album’s best song, Lekman considers the stakes of his sadness: “A broken heart is not the end of the world, ‘cause the end of the world is bigger than love.” It’s supposed to be comforting, reassuring, the lyrical equivalent of a cup of hot tea, but it’s clear even Lekman himself doesn’t quite believe it. And that’s what makes him so relatable and charming: He may not know exactly what love is, but on I Know What Love Isn’t, he sure as hell gives himself over to all of love’s most ridiculous dreams.